By Richard Ghazal executive director at In Defense of Christians / @richghazal
At a time when Lebanon is on the brink of collapse, and Israel faces an increased existential threat by Iran via Hezbollah, steadfast U.S. support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) is critical. As such, the Strategic Lebanon Security Reporting Act, introduced this month by Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), and the Countering Hizballah in Lebanon’s Military Act, introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), present the latest examples of confused Middle East policy initiatives.
These bills rightly condemn Hezbollah as a threat to Lebanese sovereignty, Israeli security, and U.S. regional interests. However, they also erroneously imply that the LAF, Lebanon’s guarantor of sovereignty and security, is influenced by Hezbollah. The bills make unfounded declarations, dressed in the cloak of inquiry, that have been discredited.
The White House, State Department, Defense Department and Congress have acknowledged the LAF’s critical role in securing American interests in the Levant, and that it remains the only viable Lebanese institution to serve that role. In May, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter — signed by 24 congressional colleagues — to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, noting that “supplementary assistance” to the LAF should be a cornerstone of U.S. policy and engagement in the Levant at this critical juncture. Days later, the State Department increased its Foreign Military Financing commitment to the LAF by $15 million for fiscal year 2021.
The LAF remains the most trusted institution in Lebanon, according to Gen. Joseph Votel, former commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in 2018 and 2019. Through decades of civil war and foreign occupation, it has been uninfluenced by external, malign powers. Much to Iran’s consternation, the LAF is the guardian of Lebanese independence from nefarious, external influences. It is a cornerstone of Lebanese society and serves as a bridge between religious sects for a unified national identity, which Hezbollah seeks to disrupt. While Hezbollah would benefit from a divided Lebanese society, a strong LAF helps to preserve a united, Western-facing Lebanon.
With Lebanon plagued by political, economic, humanitarian and national security crises, unfounded assertions against the LAF perpetuate irresponsible policy initiatives. Suspicions regarding Hezbollah’s cooperation with — or influence over — the LAF have been adequately explored and discredited by U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers on the ground.
As a former U.S. intelligence officer, I spent several years assessing the LAF’s capabilities and readiness, in light of the rapidly growing Hezbollah threat, in support of U.S. national security interests and Israeli national security. My investigation and analysis confirmed two simple truths: 1) a ready and capable LAF is essential to the protection of Israel against the ever-growing existential threat posed by Hezbollah, and 2) while the LAF’s rank-and-file enlisted corps represents a demographic cross-section of Lebanese society, the LAF general command staff, command structure and special forces units remain firmly Western-oriented.
Critics of the LAF often mischaracterize its inability to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 — calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah — as a refusal to do so. The fact is, the LAF is unable to engage Hezbollah in direct, kinetic confrontation because of insufficient funding, armament and training. Such a direct confrontation assuredly would end in a decisive Hezbollah victory over the LAF and would spur a total collapse of the Lebanese state, providing Iran an uncontested foothold on Israel’s northern border. In short, the LAF’s unwillingness to confront Hezbollah is not for lack of will, but rather lack of ability.
Iran funds Hezbollah to the tune of $700 million annually, compared to the $216 million in annual U.S. assistance to the LAF, which presents a crushing discrepancy.
Skeptics highlight Hezbollah propaganda photos showcasing what are claimed to be American weapons and armored vehicles. This has been discredited by the State Department; the LAF is confirmed to be in full compliance with State’s End-Use-Monitoring program, which guards against the unauthorized transfer or use of U.S. technology and equipment. The Department of Defense has further confirmed that the propaganda photos do not depict U.S.-derived weapon systems; instead they are those stolen from disbanded militias.
In March, CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie traveled to Lebanon and attested to the LAF’s good-faith partnership, stating that “[O]ur relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces is built upon a mutual desire for security and stability in the region and our ability to train together for collective benefit.”
Lebanon is teetering on the brink of collapse at the hands of Hezbollah. Legislation that propagates disinformation about Lebanon’s military force serves only to buttress Hezbollah and Iran’s narrative. A key component of Iran’s overarching geopolitical objective is to isolate Lebanon from the United States and the West and steer it into the Iranian domain. Iran will stop at nothing to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Lebanon, and this legislation unwittingly supports that plan.
Without a strong, legitimate national military force, Hezbollah’s quasi-state effectively would be granted hegemony in Lebanon and would be free to advance Iran’s proxy empire in the Levant with total impunity.
Rather than perpetuating unfounded inferences regarding the LAF’s supposed cooperation with Hezbollah, the more constructive question is: How can the U.S. give the LAF a competitive edge over Hezbollah?
Currently, the U.S. provides Lebanon with rotary wing aircraft (helicopters) and legacy A-29 aircraft, all of which are no match for Hezbollah’s low- and medium-altitude surface-to-air defense systems. The LAF requires a squadron of SEAD-capable (suppression of enemy air defenses) aircraft to defeat Hezbollah’s surface-to-air threats and secure air superiority.
The U.S. also provides small arms (M-4 carbines) and armored combat vehicles (Humvees and M2A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles). The provision of such ground-centric weapon systems should be broadened and increased. Additionally, the LAF’s close air support capability (rotary and fixed wing) should be bolstered to support a future LAF encounter with the Hezbollah ground threat in the hostile south, Beqaa Valley, and along the Syrian border.
Finally, LAF intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities must be built up to monitor Hezbollah’s military posturing and counter Hezbollah’s other malign activity, including reported weapons smuggling through Syria.
The U.S. must not allow Lebanon to fall to Hezbollah and Iran. Rather, the U.S. must maintain maximum pressure on Tehran. Legislation that appears to aim to abandon the LAF would be the first step in a failed Iran policy, leaving Israel at peril.
Richard Ghazal is executive director at In Defense of Christians. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate, intelligence officer and Levant subject matter expert, with special focus on Hezbollah. Richard Ghazal is an ordained reader in the Syriac Orthodox Church, and speaks the Turoyo dialect of Aramaic. You can follow him @richghazal
The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.